I’ll try anything once. Well, maybe not cliff diving … or running with the bulls … or a Mohawk hairdo … or silicone lip injections. But when it comes to food, I’m totally adventurous.
Every time our military family moved to a new place, I couldn’t wait to try the local cuisine. Most of the time, we loved the native dishes, incorporating local recipes into our regular meal routine.
Early in our marriage, my husband was assigned to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. At first, we were disappointed to find that pizzas in California had foo-foo toppings such as sprouts, gorgonzola, fennel, and pears. And the wait staff wore trendy glasses, thumb rings and Greenpeace t-shirts. What ever happened to good old-fashioned pepperoni and “mootz-a-rell”, served by someone named “Ang” with bad highlights and a mustache?
However, once we tasted the local foods -- fresh-caught squid, Gilroy garlic, Castroville artichokes, and tangy sourdough bread hot from the oven – we were hooked.
Similarly, our next tour in England added delicate crumpets and hearty Shepherd’s pie to our repertoire. Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs and plump Virginia peanuts became staples after back-to-back tours in Virginia Beach. Germany brought us countless European delights including schnitzel, beer, goulash, beer, spaetzle, beer, chocolate, and beer.
Oh, and did I mention beer?
During a tour in the Deep South, we became connoisseurs of fried chicken, hush puppies, shrimp and grits, and biscuits. And Rhode Island has blessed our palates with rich chowder, sweet brown bread, lobster rolls and traditional rum drinks made with spicy ginger beer.
However, for every delectable indigenous morsel that passed favorably over my taste buds, there were countless other native foods that triggered my gag reflex. Our mobile military life has taught me that every region has its share of really bad foods, and I’m not such a foodie that I will pretend to like them.
Over the years, I’ve learned to look out for certain “red flags.” For example, if someone tells you that you have to “develop a taste for it,” that means you will need to consume copious amounts of the substance to desensitize your taste buds to its wretched flavor.
A peanut lover, I couldn’t wait to try southern boiled peanuts, until I discovered that the slippery, mushy nuggets tasted like mutated potato. It took several tries before I was able to eat them without shuddering.
If someone tells you, “It tastes like [chicken or some other familiar meat],” beware that you are about to be served mysterious animal parts.
Whilst in England, I was served black pudding and told it was a variety of sausage. A tiny nibble filled my mouth with the distinct taste of vital organs. In Scotland, I was offered a sliver of haggis and told that it tasted “just like pork and oats.” One swallow and I felt as if I’d just licked the underbellies of a herd of sweaty sheep. At a cafe in France, the waiter encouraged me to try an Alsatian delicacy called, “Sauerkraut Royale.” I spent the next hour sorting through hunks of cartilage and fat tangled with pickled cabbage. In Munich, I made the mistake of ordering the local favorite, Schweinhaxe, only to be presented with a huge roasted pig’s knuckle joint, translucent sinew and all.
And, if someone tells you, “it just needs a little hot sauce,” they are saying that you will need to distract yourself with pain in order to ingest this foul tasting dish. At the risk of igniting another Civil War, let me say that greens are not as good as southern folk proclaim. Collards, mustards, chards – isn’t it suspicious that they are all slow cooked in bacon fat and disguised with Texas Pete?
But don’t be discouraged, foodies. There are still certain universal truisms in the world of local cuisine upon which you can depend. For example, even though you can never trust anyone who tells you to “suck the juice out of the head, it’s the best part,” you can always believe the person who says, “it’s good with butter.”
After all, what isn’t good with butter?
Lisa Smith Molinari is an award-winning syndicated columnist, author, blogger and speaker. “The Meat & Potatoes of Life” appears weekly in civilian and military newspapers across the United States.